Update on the Affordable Housing Overlay (3 Responses)

Over the past two months the Housing Committee has held six public hearings on a proposal to create a new set of zoning regulations intended to spur the creation of more permanently affordable housing citywide. Such developments, whether new construction or the redevelopment of existing buildings, would be allowed to be significantly larger than what is currently allowed under the base zoning for each district. No special permit or variance would be required, and there would be no right of appeal, as there is under the 40B comprehensive permit process that has been used for other affordable developments. CDD has created a webpage where you can find more information about the overlay proposal.

At the April 25th Housing Committee hearing on the overlay I voted “present” as a reflection of my concerns about moving the zoning proposal forward before having considered the broader financial and planning implications that were the subject of a policy order I submitted to the manager, which the Council adopted unanimously, on April 1st.

However, the other four members of the Housing Committee voted in favor of sending the draft zoning on to the Ordinance Committee and the Planning Board for further consideration. Once the committee report is placed on a future Council agenda, likely in a week or two, the Council will have to vote to accept their recommendation to send it on this path. Ultimately a two-thirds vote of the Council will be necessary to adopt the zoning. I hope that during the next series of public meetings additional language will be added to address the concerns expressed by many residents of all areas about the lack of any meaningful design guidelines, the weak public and non-binding Planning Board review process, and the need for more explicit incentives to preserve existing middle-income housing, significant buildings, neighborhood retail, open space, trees, and appropriate scaling.

You may watch the video of the meeting here. My comments start at the 1 hour-42 minute mark.

Here is the clerk’s record of what I said copied from the Housing Committee report:

Vice Mayor Devereux thanked all for their participation. She stated that she has some follow-up thoughts. She said that while finding opportunities to preserve and create subsidized housing is a high priority, there are other community needs and many interests to balance, and she does not think that the overlay, at least as it is currently proposed, is the right way to approach it, or that it is ready to pass along to the Ordinance Committee and Planning Board. She said that there has been no report back from the City Manager in response to the list of questions in the Policy Order of 4/1 about the overlay’s broader implications. She said that as a conscientious policymaker and public servant, she cannot support this without understanding its full range of impact.

Vice Mayor Devereux said that she agrees with Mayor McGovern that it can work, but this draft does not help to understand how and where higher densities can be accommodated with the fewest detrimental impacts on the scale and architectural form of our neighborhoods in all their wonderful variety. She stated that there are many soft sites where some incremental additional density would further our citywide planning goals, enliven dead blocks, and reactivate neighborhood retail corridors.

Vice Mayor Devereux said that a market-based approach that incentivizes the insertion of high-density buildings throughout the city, with no overarching plan, is unwise.  She said that while form-based zoning is conceived to be use-agnostic, the overlay introduces form-based zoning for a single use (affordable housing) and serves it to us in three sizes: small, medium and large. She said that it ignores the urban design principles underlying the form-based approach, which are to create a harmonious public realm. She said that she has not seen design guidelines and there is no indication that we will get the type of detailed guidelines that other cities have spent many months, even years, developing before implementing form-based zoning (400 meetings in Miami). She said that instead, we are being told: “Trust us, you will like what we build. And if you don’t, well, producing more units of subsidized housing is more important than anything else the community values or needs.”

Vice Mayor Devereux asked where are the universities, large developers and the major employers they build for that are creating the jobs and bottomless demand for housing that we have permitted? She questioned why they have remained silent when their affiliates and employees come and tell us they cannot afford to live here. She noted that they have land and resources and they have a responsibility to the community that cannot be erased with community benefit packages in exchange for up-zonings.

Vice Mayor Devereux said that this proposal has been framed in such a way that it has driven people into corners instead of bringing us to together to solve a need that stems from an overheated innovation economy and massive disruptions to our economy and workforce that have widened income inequality.

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    Jan Devereux
    City Councillor
    Cambridge, MA